In Part 6, I took a closer look at Paul’s statement that “all have sinned” (Romans 3:23) and “none are righteous” (Romans 3:10). With this final installment, I would like to address a similar passage from John’s first letter and then conclude with an explanation of how Mary could proclaim that God was her savior if she was without sin.
You Call Him a Liar
Another passage often used against Mary’s sinlessness comes from the first letter of St. John:
1 John 1:8, 10: If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. … If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
Now, I think there are two ways to approach this passage. The first one requires that we read it again in context:
1 John 1:5-10: This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not live according to the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
The context reveals that this passage is not about just any ol’ sinner. This passage has in mind those people living in darkness, people who have not experienced the saving work of Christ and who think that they don’t need Him. If you look at the pattern of the passage, verses 6, 8, 10 parallel each other, and verses 7 and 9 parallel each other. That means that it is those who walk in darkness (vs. 6) who say they have no sin (vs. 8) and make God a liar (vs. 10).
But, Mary is not among those who walk in darkness and deny that they need Christ. Her spirit rejoices in God her savior! (cf. Luke 1:47) She has already experienced His grace in her life (Luke 1:28), and handed herself over to His Will (cf. Luke 1:38). Her soul does not reject the Lord, it magnifies Him (cf. Luke 1:46). So, in a variety of ways I think this passage from John’s first letter does not apply to her.
The second way to approach this passage is the same way that we approached the passages from Romans: not all men have sinned. This passage from John need not be any more all-encompassing then Romans 3 is.
My Spirit Rejoices in God My Savior
If Mary was conceived without sin and committed no sins throughout her life, on what grounds then does she have to rejoice in the salvation of God, as she does in Luke 1:47? I think there are two ways to answer this question.
First of all, consider for example the manner in which a person may be saved from a pit. He could be rescued from the pit once he has fallen in. That is one way. But, there is also another way: he could be prevented from falling into the pit in the first place. Catholics acknowledge that Mary was due to inherit the stain of original sin just as we all are. The pit lay squarely in her path as it lay in the path of every man. But, in this solitary instance, God intervened and kept her from falling into the pit of sin. He did this by filling her with His grace. For a woman who committed no sin, that is essentially the only way that God could still be her Savior, as He undoubtedly is.
If you think about it, God’s saving work is perfected through this intervention. Now God can boast of not only freeing man from the pit of sin into which he is born and continues to fall, but also of actually keeping one from among mankind from falling into the pit in the first place. In this way, the Immaculate Conception gives glory to God and is a testament to the fullness of His saving power.
Secondly, to counter this objection from an entirely different angle, a case could very well be made that the salvation in which Mary rejoices is not from spiritual forces, but material ones. God does not only save people from sin, or temptation, or hell, or the devil. Sometimes He also saves people from the plight of their physical circumstance. Theologians refer to this as “temporal salvation.”
The Old Testament and the New Testament are both filled with instances of this type of salvation. See, for example, from the Old Testament:
Genesis 49:18-19: I wait for thy salvation, O LORD. Raiders shall raid Gad, but he shall raid at their heels.
Exodus 14:13-14: And Moses said to the people, “Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the LORD, which he will work for you today; for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The LORD will fight for you, and you have only to be still.”
Deuteronomy 23:14: Because the LORD your God walks in the midst of your camp, to save you and to give up your enemies before you, therefore your camp must be holy, that he may not see anything indecent among you, and turn away from you.
Likewise, from the New Testament:
Matthew 8:23-25: And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. And behold, there arose a great storm on the sea, so that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him, saying, “Save, Lord; we are perishing.”
Matthew 27:42: He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him
Luke 1:68-71: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people, and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all who hate us
The Magnificat (where we find Mary rejoicing in God her savior) is another example. Here it is in its entirety:
Luke 1:46-55: And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden. For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is on those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm, he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts, he has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever.”
Look what is happening here. “My spirit rejoices in God my savior.” Why? “For he has regarded the low estate of his handmaiden.” Because of what God has done for her — preparing her for motherhood and then making her the mother of His Son — she has gone from lowly servant of God, bound to obscurity, to all generations remembering and honoring her. This concerns her state in life or her legacy, not her eternal salvation.
Other evidence that temporal salvation is at the forefront of her mind is seen in the many examples of temporal salvation that she proceeds to name:
- He has shown strength with His arm
- He has scattered the proud
- He has put down the mighty
- He has exalted those of low degree
- He has filled the hungry with good things
- He has sent the rich away empty
- He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity for ever
That the parallel canticle from Zechariah also concerns temporal salvation (“from our enemies, from the hand of all who hate us”) is further evidence that Mary is rejoicing in her temporal salvation, not her eternal reward. If that is the case, then Protestants can’t use Luke 1:47, as they so often do, to discredit Mary’s sinlessness. Of course, as we have already seen, even if Mary were referring to her eternal reward, it does little to refute the Catholic doctrine.
Undoubtedly, there are still more objections to the Immaculate Conception that I have not addressed. I have tried to be as comprehensive as possible while also respecting the time (and attention span!) of the average reader. I hope you find my work here to be of service as you set out to defend our Blessed Mother, and I pray you have a blessed Advent in these final days leading up to Christmas.